Trust, Communication Enabled Philippines Peace Deal
By Catherine Cheney,
Over the weekend, the Philippine government announced that it had reached a framework agreement with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front to end the separatist insurgency the rebel group has waged for decades in the southern Philippines.
As reported by the New York Times, Philippine President Benigno S. Aquino III said the framework agreement “paves the way” for peace and represents a major step toward ending the conflict in Mindanao, a predominantly Muslim island in the only predominantly Christian country in Asia.
In an email interview with Trend Lines, Steven Rood, the Asia Foundation’s country representative in the Philippines and an adviser in an international group that facilitated the peace talks, emphasized the importance of the government’s recognition of a new governing political entity in Mindanao, the Bangsamoro, that will provide the Muslim inhabitants with more local autonomy in exchange for ending their demands for an independent state.
Rood put the demands for autonomy in context, explaining that while the Philippines’ religious background is relevant, this does not mean that the conflict is a religious one.
“Rather, ‘hispanized’ Filipinos and Moros have different social structures, languages and manners of governing their communities,” he said. “While Muslims in the Philippines have long resisted assimilation into the larger mainstream society, it was only in the 1960s, as the Manila government expanded its control over remote areas of Mindanao, that armed resistance broke out.”
Mindanao is now among the poorest parts of the Philippines, Rood explained.
“This adds to a sense of grievance, of being abandoned and exploited by a central government dominated by persons of a different identity,” he said. “Thus, the designation of this area as ‘the Bangsamoro’ and the declaration that the government recognized ‘the Bangsamoro identity’ means that a step forward has taken place.”
Rood told Trend Lines that while the deal includes more compromises on both sides than seemed possible a year ago, a great deal of work remains to transform the framework into a lasting peace deal.
“One of the lessons learned from the unsatisfactory implementation of the 1996 Final Peace Agreement is that monitoring of key milestones and progress is essential,” he said, adding that monitoring is built into this framework agreement in several ways.
What allowed the government and the rebels to come to an agreement this time, as compared to past attempts, Rood said, was that both sides reached out to stakeholders to keep them informed and incorporate their concerns into the agreement.
Aquino himself is also a major reason for the success of the framework agreement, Rood added. He is popular, and because of his “extraordinary political capital,” the Moro Islamic Liberation Front felt confident that he would be able to carry out the agreement. Meanwhile, the wider Philippine population sees his endorsement as an indication that the agreement is acceptable.
“Of course, these conditions, particularly the political capital of the president, will fade,” Rood added. “That is why the timetable is to complete the process by 2016, when [Aquino] will step down.”
Other potential roadblocks, Rood said, are Christian and Muslim officials who are skeptical of the deal, though he said Aquino has persuaded most of them to “stifle their doubts and give this agreement a chance.”
“The most influential Muslim skeptic is Nur Misuari, founding chairman of the Moro National Liberation Front,” Rood said, referring to the organization from which the Moro Islamic Liberation Front split in the early 1980s. “He retains considerable prestige throughout Muslim Mindanao, but it remains to be seen how much impact his opposition will have.”
Furthermore, Rood made a distinction between the Muslims on mainland Mindanao and those in the Sulu Archipelago, who he said are less likely to want to join a political entity led by the mainland Moro Islamic Liberation Front.
News reports have noted that the deal does not include extremists groups like the Islamist Abu Sayyaf. Rood attributed this to the fact that these groups are fighting for goals that are incompatible with the terms under which these negotiations are occurring, “including the territorial integrity of the Philippine state.”
Peace with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front will not immediately affect the activities of other extremist groups, Rood said. “Should the Bangsamoro be successfully established through the peace process and begin to improve the lives of Muslims in the Philippines,” he added, “then the grievances that fuel support for the Abu Sayyaf will be lessened.”
Photo: A Moro rebel at an outpost in the southern Philippines (Photo by Wikimedia user Mark Navales, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution Generic 2.0).